Travel beneficial for Panthers

Plant’s boys play only away matches and say learning to adapt quickly is paying off.

Published October 22, 2006

TAMPA — They have played on long courses and short ones, courses where trees hug the fairways and others where players are more likely to hit a bird than a branch.

Throughout the fall, their rubber spikes have trod par-5s from Bloomingdale to Buckhorn Springs, Rogers Park to Rocky Point.

The Plant Panthers, it seems, have played a match everywhere this season.

Except on their home course — the MacDill Air Force Base.

“We have to go through security and stuff like that,” Panthers fourth-year coach Mike James said. “And we’ve had to get checks; we have passes made up. It’s just a little bit hard to get another team that clearance as well.”
 Plant’s vagabond schedule is paying off. Being forced to quickly acclimate themselves to less familiar courses  is one of the reasons James insists the Panthers are headed for the Class 2A state tournament.

“We play in all different environments, and some courses are in great shape, some courses are in rough shape.

We play ’em all,” James said at Tuesday’s Class 2A, Region 4 tournament at Tarpon Woods, where the Panthers earned a state berth with a second-place team finish.

“We’ve never played  (at Tarpon Woods), but we’re used to having to adapt to the new environment.”

On Tuesday, the Panthers adapted splendidly to Tarpon Woods, a 6,550-yard course (from the back tees) where water comes into play on nearly every hole.

Four Plant players shot 83 or better, including medalist Charlie Martin III (73), who had three birdies during a four-hole stretch on the back nine.

“I was hitting the ball well on the range,” said Martin, a Jesuit transfer who played with the Tigers at last season’s state tournament. “But I didn’t expect honestly (to shoot 71).”

This week’s state tournament, set for Tuesday and Wednesday at Fort Pierce’s Fairwinds Golf Course, will be the ninth course on which the Panthers have competed this season.

They still hold most of their team practices at MacDill’s Bay Palms Golf Complex — a public facility — and technically could hold matches there. But getting opponents and spectators cleared to enter the base can be logistically challenging.

According to Ron Matthews, the golf complex’s assistant operations director, those wishing to play at MacDill must submit their names to tournament director Fred Dibella, who in turn provides the names to the base’s security staff a couple of days in advance.

All approved golfers — and spectators — must pass through one gate, where their names are cross-checked. A last-minute lineup change by an opponent can pose a major problem, Matthews said.

“I don’t think the golf course would ever have a problem with us having a match out there, it’s just a matter of getting through the gate,” James said. “I’d hate for another coach to get in the car, drive from Plant City or whatever, get to the gate and get turned away.”

So to avoid such a potential problem, the Panthers drive the interstates and expressways well before attempting to drive any green.

“And I think that helps us when it comes to playing this time of year,” James said, “because we’re used to playing courses that we’re unfamiliar with.”

- Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3350.